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The Mystery of the French Paradox

If there’s a country and culture that is universally admired and hated at the same time it’s France.

I’m here in Paris right now as part of our Raw Trip Around the World, trying to avoid the temptation of freshly baked croissants and instead wondering why everybody loves France and it’s cuisine (except raw-foodists).

Because French is my first language, most Americans I meet confess to having taken French in high school. They seem really proud of the fact, even though they couldn’t order an orange juice in Paris to save their lives.

But they took French. Not Spanish, but French. It’s strange because Spanish is practically the second language of the United States, yet most Americans would rather learn French.

If you ask an American what is one city they would like to visit before they die, I can predict that in the vast majority of cases they would answer, “Paris”.

Read an American novel and you’ll be surprised how often the writer likes to boast his knowledge of French culture by sprinkling a few French expressions here and there, without bothering to translate them, implying that he probably speaks fluent French (even though he doesn’t).

France is THE number one most visited country in the world by tourists. And the Eiffel Tower is the most visited building in the world.

I was really surprised when I learned this. I thought maybe those sunny destinations would be more popular, or even Italy. But no, it’s France.

Something like 30 to 40% of the English vocabulary comes from French.

The claim is that the French invented modern gourmet cuisine. (We also think that they invented French fries, when it fact the Belgians did.)

At the same time, the French people have a bad reputation. They smell bad because they don’t bathe often or use deodorants. They’re rude. And unless you speak perfect French to them, they will snub you.

Are these things true?

When it comes to diet and nutrition, there’s also a common belief: French people are healthier and slimmer than Americans even though they eat fatty and rich foods. It’s the French paradox!

Is it the wine that’s protecting them?

Are fatty foods actually bad for us?

Before I get into that, let me tell you about my first few days in Paris, and trying to eat raw here.

Two days ago, we took a bicycle tour of the city with a group. We were gone all day, biking all over the city, and unfortunately the group did not plan to stop at at any raw food restaurant or juice bar.

Instead, they wanted everybody to taste the French lifestyle, so they stopped at a café, and later at an outdoor market where everybody was ordered to buy as much bread, cheese, wine and meat as they could, for an afternoon picnic

It’s true, waiters working at French cafés are absolute snobs, even if you speack perfect French to them.

In one café, every single salad on the menu contained either cheese, eggs or meat. When we asked the waiter if we could modify any of the salads, he answered “order something else!”

But since we took an extra 20 seconds to look at the menu to see if there was anything else we could order, our waiter looked irritated and left to serve someone else!

Talk about an attitude!

Every French café serves freshly squeezed orange juice. However it comes in the tiniest glass you can imagine, and probably contains the equivalent of one and a half oranges. And for that, they will charge you almost 6 euros (or $7!).

When we went to visit the beautiful Chateaux de Versaille near Paris, we stopped at a big town market, where locals and tourists buy gourmet baguette, wine, cheese, meat, and other delicacies. There was one stand of fresh fruits and vegetables, which sold super-high quality, fancy produce.

Everything looked amazing: the best peaches you’ve ever seen. The sweetest plums imaginable. Several kinds of cherries, and more.

However, the prices were truly out of this world! It was like a nightmare…

The average fruit cost the equivalent of $5 a pound or more. The most outrageous were the ranier cherries, imported from Canada (of all places), which cost almost 40 Euros per kilo, which is the equivalent of almost $25 per pound!

At that price, I calculated that it would cost about 50 cents per cherry! Are you kidding me?

We ended up buying some watermelon, and some truly delicious small yellow plums called “mirabelles”. I won’t tell you how much it cost for that. But let’s just say my wallet was bleeding.

However, I’ve never had such nice treatment at any fruit store, anywhere. The girls working there were super polite and smiling, almost as if they were treating for royalty. At those prices…

After those adventures, we discovered that inside Paris the prices were much more reasonable, more than 2 to 5 times less than that fruit stand in Versailles.

We found a place called “Le Palais du Fruit” down the street from our apartment, which translates as “The Palace of Fruit”, where they have an endless supply of the most delicious fresh figs, white peaches, and French plums.

By the way, French plums are truly amazing. There’s one type called “Reine-Claude”, which is green with a tint of yellow, and bursting with flavor and sugar.

We also found a juice bar called “Wanna Juice” that offers very large smoothies and juices, made with fresh fruits only, at very reasonable prices.

So in the end… it’s possible to eat raw in France, but you have to avoid all restaurants and cafés like the plague.

Why French People Stay Thin

It is true, French people are much slimmer than Americans overall, even in 2010.
Yet, they eat some of the most decadent, fatty foods known to mankind, and they do that on a regular basis.
I’m talking about butter in everything: sauces, croissants, meat… everything contains a ridiculous amount of fat, that would make any nutritionist cringe.

They have hundreds of types of cheese, and they love to talk about them too. Being vegetarian here is a laughable idea, as almost no traditional meal is vegan.

The wine here is dirt cheap, being taxed less than most countries in the world. And French people love to drink alcohol, and even give it to pre-schooler kids!

And to smash all possible proof for the Atkin’s diet, we should note that French people also love their carbs. 80% of them eat baguette or bread with every single meal.

With all that fattening food, you’d expect the French to be at least fatter than Americans, but the contrary is quite true. Obesity rates are less than 10% here, compared to 30% in the US.

And also rates of heart rate disease (by number of deaths every year) is almost a third of what it is in the US.

Cancer rates are also a little lower, but not dramatically.

So…. qu’est-ce qu’il se passe!? (What is going on!?)

Some have said that the reason French people stay relatively healthier is that they drink so much wine, and wine somehow protects them and “cleans their arteries”.

However, further research disproved this theory.

What is clear now is that French people stay slimmer and have less heart disease because they eat less in general, and they care more about what they eat.

One of the main factors is QUANTITY.

In French, the word for lunch literally means “breakfast” because it was the first meal of the day.

However, when people started eating a little something in the morning, they called that meal “little breakfast” (petit déjeuner).

The average breakfast in France is still pretty light. Maybe a croissant with some coffee, but many people skip it entirely.
Lunch is a big thing. They take their lunches seriously, often taking 2 hours or more to eat and chat.

Dinner is traditionally simple, and many smart French people eat almost nothing for dinner — maybe some fruit and yogurt. However, it’s becoming popular to have bigger dinners nowadays.

My other theory on the French Paradox is the love of food that people have here.

People still like to shop like in the old days, buying their bread at the boulangerie (baker), their produce at the fruit shop or the market, their meat at the butcher, and so on.

Food is a big topic of conversation, and don’t be surprised if you get caught in a conversation with a French person where they’ll literally spend half an hour to describe their particular method for picking the best wild mushrooms, or making a particular recipe.

Because of this obsession for food, they also tend to care a lot more about food quality, by buying local products they can trust, and even harvesting and growing produce themselves as much as possible.

Also, the SOCIAL aspect of life is extremely important here.

For our stay in Paris, we rented a small studio with a kitchen in the heart of the city.

When we arrived, the landlord, a friendly lady called Dominique, was waiting to greet us.

Normally, people just hand you the keys, maybe say a few words and leave as soon as possible.

However, Dominique literally spent half an hour talking to us, going through every single aspect of the apartment and it was a small studio!

For example, when she showed us how to use the Internet or even the key to get in the place, she didn’t just explain us what to do. She made sure that the Internet worked on my computer, and stepped outside with us so we could “test” the keys and make sure it worked.

On top of that, she greeted us with a gift: a little box of expensive French cookies, just purchased from the baker.

I didn’t have the courage to tell her we wouldn’t eat those cookies because of our special diet, because her gesture was so sweet and so French.

When I told Dominique that this kind of welcome was quite uncommon in this business, she was very surprised.

“Oh yeah, why not?” She was truly startled.

We rented a similar place in London, and all we got was the key and a printed sheet of paper with a lot of details to figure out ourselves! (Just the basics, 1 towel each, and no soap, no cloths and no new bed sheets!)

People here tend to spend more time together. When they eat, it’s not the same rushed experience you would get at a fast-food restaurant.
Taking two hours to enjoy your lunch with your friends will certainly enhance your digestion, as opposed to angrily and hurridly eating a burger alone.

In the end, it’s nothing magical that makes French people slimmer and a bit healthier, in spite of all that fattening food.
It’s a combination of:

Reasonable portions
Food quality
Social context

*Are French People Truly Healthy?*

In spite of everything I have said, we should not conclude that French people have found the secret to good life and good health by eating this way.

Cancer rates are still very high in this country — almost as high as they are in North America.

The medical industry thrives here, and even French people can’t escape the consequences of eating animal products and fatty foods on a daily basis.

All the ailments that are common in Western countries are very common here, but the situation is not as out of control as it is in the USA… at least for now.

People living in the city tend to be healthier than those living in the country-side, but that’s a world-wide trend.

Here are some final points of advice, translating everything to the raw food world:

* Spend more time to enjoy your meals in good company.

* Make your meals look beautiful, in order to enhance the appreciation of the whole experience, and even improve digestion.

* Care about what you eat. Discover as many fruits and vegetables as you can, and become a fruit expert!

* Grow your own food if you can, or buy from local farmers that you know personally.

The low-fat raw diet works. Animal products DONT work. Even the French can’t escape the consequences of animal products, whose consumption leads to cancer and a wide range of health problems.

To discover my high-raw, high-fruit, low fat method of success, check out the Raw Health Starter Kit:

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets.